Probabilities for 2018 Senate race
If politics is a science, it is a science of probabilities, not certainties. “President” Hillary Clinton could probably elaborate on that as could the late “President” Tom Dewey.
This is not to say there are no certainties in politics. One is the calendar. Pennsylvania on November 6th will hold a U.S. Senate election (along with 33 other states) - one that almost certainly will help determine which national party controls Congress during the last two years of President Trump’s current term.
Another near certainty is that the opposing major party nominees will be Democrat incumbent Bob Casey and retiring Republican Congressman Lou Barletta. Casey’s a two-term incumbent who has no serious opposition within the Democratic Party while Barletta overwhelming won the endorsement of his Republican Party.
Finally, we can be sure the Pennsylvania senate race will be perceived as a proxy war between the supporters of President Trump and his opponents. No fiercer critic of Trump serves in the senate than Democrat Bob Casey, while there has been no more loyal or enthusiastic supporter of Trump than Barletta. Casey routinely criticizes Trump for many of his policies. While Barletta, who co-chaired Trump’s race in Pennsylvania, was the early face of immigration policies Trump later adopted.
Who might win this looming contest between two candidates who could not be more different? Answering that takes us squarely into the realm of political probabilities, where numerous historical and political antecedents prefigure the race.
Collectively, these suggest that Congressman Barletta, indeed, has “a high hill to climb” to defeat Casey – although it would be foolish to predict either an easy or certain victory for the two- term incumbent. Barletta, who hails from Hazelton, is no “Rocky Balboa” like political pugilist, and he has no bronze statue sitting off the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But “Rocky” could well be Barletta’s campaign avatar as he begins an epic struggle to unseat Casey - who has run statewide five times for three separate offices in the past 15 years, winning all of them in a landslide. In fact, his 2018 candidacy going back to his father, the near legendary governor of the same name, will be the 15th time the Casey name has appeared on a state ballot over some six decades.
Hard statistical probabilities lead the list of challenges confronting Barletta. For more than a century, the reelection rate for incumbent senators of the party not in the White House is 91 percent. Statistically speaking, that makes Barletta’s chances of beating Casey about nine percent.
Barletta also faces other challenges. One of these is Trump. The congressman has embraced him so fiercely that the race will inevitably be seen as a personal referendum on Trump and his policies. Trump’s current anemic approval rating means Barletta may have trouble expanding his base beyond core Trump supporters. Even worse, Barletta is most known for his hard line position on immigration, a position greatly at odds with swing and independent state voters.
Money also looks problematic for Barletta. Casey already has about ten times more cash on hand ($5.5 million). Nor is this more than early money in 2018. The Toomey race in 2016 topped $175 million, setting a national record.
Barletta has little experience in raising these large sums. To do better he has to attract Republican national campaign funders to his cause – and to do that he must demonstrate the ability to raise more funds. That will not be easy. Competitive races abound across the country and Barletta must look like a winner to attract his share of campaign contributions.
All of this paints a dreary picture for the Barletta candidacy. He is likely to lose. But likely to lose is not certainty that he will.
Trump’s approval ratings are showing a modest upward tick nationally which could continue into the November election. Certainly, he will campaign for Barletta and it is not yet clear whether Trump helps or hurts on the campaign trail.
Moreover, the now elusive money will flow into Barletta’s coffers if he gains momentum and rookie or no; he might turn out to be a great campaigner.
If any or all of these things happen, this race could end up an old fashioned Pennsylvania nail biter.
The probabilities are that it won’t. The certainty is that it could. G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a former professor of public affairs at Penn State University.